My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

I was introduced to Daphne du Maurier the way most people were introduced to Daphne du Maurier: someone told me I absolutely had to read Rebecca, and so I did (that someone was, I think, my sister, though my mom and one of my friends had read it too). I read du Maurier’s most well-known novel as a sophomore in high school, and fell hard. I went on to read Jamaica Inn as a senior in high school, which remains one of the most suspenseful reading experiences I’ve ever had, and read many of her short stories in college. My roommate found my copy of Tales of the Macabre in the bathroom and more or less stole the book from me till he was done reading it. Daphne du Maurier has that affect.

Actually, I had been introduced to the English novelist well before reading Rebecca, but I didn’t know it. I watched The Birds sometime in grade school and loved it (and still do; Tippi Hedren, I love your work), but it wasn’t until I read du Maurier’s short stories much later that I discovered she’d written the source material for one of Hitchcock’s stranger films. She wrote Don’t Look Now as well, which I read long before I got into classic film enough to be aware of the Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of that grim tale, which is possibly the best film version of any of her works.

In high school and immediately after, I bought every du Maurier book I could find. They were cheap and they were everywhere, so I quickly amassed a stack of her novels in dusty old book club edition hardcovers (a specific format I adore and which gets a bad rap in the bookselling community). Then life happened, and I didn’t read any of them. I continued to preach the gospel of Rebecca, and gave copies as gifts to close friends through my twenties, with the same You-have-to-read-this urgency with which it had been delivered to me. But it wasn’t till last month, when I discovered a film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel was about to come out, that I decided it was time to read another du Maurier novel. My copy of that book had been patiently waiting on my shelf for close to twenty years by the time I finally cracked the cover in May.

Predictably, I loved it. It confuses me du Maurier never seems to be taken seriously as one of the great twentieth century novelists, because I am at a loss to understand by what alchemy she is able to evoke so much suspense and dread and anxiety with such simple ingredients, and such little violence (or even threat of it). I understand her themes are not terribly deep or “serious,” but who fucking cares when her books are so enjoyable, her characters so fully realized, her settings so evocative, her prose so delightful? I devoured My Cousin Rachel and fully expect to be disappointed by the movie, though I’m sure Rachel Weisz will be excellent as the titular widow, just as I’m sure whatever handsome nobody they get to play Philip will come off as a tremendous prat, as he should, because good god he’s a pain in the ass in the novel.

If you haven’t read anything by Daphne du Maurier, remedy that promptly. You might as well start with Rebecca, but don’t stop there. Du Maurier was a moody, atmospheric writer who was in total control of her instrument, and is one of the great reads in all of gothic literature.

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